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Joseph Schooling and the politics of belonging in Singapore

You guys, it’s Singapore first gold Olympic medal ever and this 21yo dude beats the Olympic Record and Phelps. What is life really?

He even placed first to three pool legends tied for second.

And how does Joseph Schooling react to his historic win? This humility, amidst some unwarranted press hate of late.


Singaporean Joseph Schooling  won the Men’s 100m Butterfly in the 2016 Olympics this morning, setting a new Olympic record and a new Asian record. He also beat his childhood hero, human fish and legendary cyborg, American Michael Phelps (who just casually won his 22nd Olympic gold between 2000 and 2016), alongside South African Le Clos and Hungarian Cseh, both of whom have been medalists at the Olympics.

Regional broadcaster Channel News Asia broke the news on their Facebook page:


But nestled under the mass of celebratory comments were a handful of commentators musing over the authenticity of Schooling’s nationality and Olympic win, because he is Eurasian and trained professionally in the US under some of the world’s best coaches.

Racial politics is volatile in Singapore, being a multi-cultural society officially comprising Chinese (74.3%), Malay (13.3%), Indians (9.1%), and Others (3.2%) – “Others” is the vague catch-all for Eurasians and other minority races (see official stats from 2015 here).

Citizenship politics is also contentious in Singapore, given the country’s migrant history. But in sports especially, the Foreign Sports Talent scheme that awards citizenship to professional players who will live in Singapore and compete for the country has been lauded and criticised. Singapore’s previous Olympic medal was won under this scheme by Chinese-born table tennis player, Feng Tianwei. (Research on the politics of “foreign talent” here).

One of the comments in the original CNA thread that reflected such thinking was this:


But Singaporeans on the internet responded swiftly; they weren’t having any of this eugenic nonsense. Anti-racist defence kept streaming in, and this is the lot I archived as of 13 August 2016, 0925hrs, GMT+8 on the original subthread:

What are Singaporeans saying? Well almost every single comment attacked the original poster (OP) or defended Schooling as a Singaporean lad. But the basis of their defence is worth some scrutiny. From this small sample, four themes have emerged:

1) Haters gonna hate

Many responses retorted the bigotry of the OP. They ranged from calling him “internet cancer” for being a wet blanket during a moment of collective celebrations, and being a “keyboard warrior” for criticising a massive effort without any input himself. Funnily enough, a handful of responses told the OP to go back to playing Pokémon Go, which has caused some uproar locally of late.

2) What is nationality any way?

The most attuned responses highlighted that nationality, race, and heritage is complex in Singapore. Some argued that Singaporeans are defined not by “blood” or “genes” but by representation, national pride, and a cultural identity. One phrase of the national pledge – “regardless of race, language, or religion” – was mobilised. Others reiterated that Singapore is after all a young, migrant country in which every one uprooted from elsewhere to make this place home. Some contested OP’s claim of a “majority genetic ability”, reminding him that Eurasians are also an official racial category in Singapore, and that his Chineseness (inferred from his last name) was not any more superior. One comment in particular pointed out that despite being the racial majority, the Chinese are not the indigenous people of Singapore any way (the Malays are)The most sentimental of the lot dissed OP for not revelling in the collective celebrations and questioned his nationality.

3) “Born and bred”

A majority of the responses leapt into legitimating Schooling’s identity and belonging, stating various claims: That Schooling was born in Singapore, that Schooling was raised in Singapore, that Schooling began his swimming training in Singapore (but had to move abroad for better training as he progressed), that Schooling is a 3rd generation Singaporean, that Schooling’s mother is Asian, that Schooling’s father speaks like a Singaporean, that Schooling eats Singapore food (heeheehee), that Schooling has a pink IC (for citizens, as opposed to the blue Identity Card (IC) for Permanent Residents).

4) Hierarchies of authenticity

Perhaps the most worrying comments are those negotiating hierarchies of authenticity. Referring to the Foreign Sports Talent scheme, these responses asserted that Schooling was more authentic than migrants who “only speak Mandarin” (the majority of athletes under this scheme are Chinese-born), that he is an “original” citizen, and that he wasn’t “imported”.

We muse about Singapore’s progress and modernity, but eugenicists still fixate on “Caucasian blood”, as purists discount one’s authenticity, belonging, and claim to the country for having lived abroad.

And what does Schooling have to say?


Majulah Singapura, homeboy.


PS: Right now, I live for the memes.

14 August 2016 2315hrs edit:
Follow-up here “Joseph Schooling and the rush to backstory a champion

2 replies »

  1. I think it’s also better to say that Schooling has decided for himself that he wanted to represent Singapore like he said ” this swim wasn’t for me, it was for my country” he is dedicated to Singapore, we should be appreciative rather than be judgmental because of his upbringing or whatsoever, we should see that he has dedicated himself for Singapore and support him

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